Cats can be stubborn creatures, but there’s perhaps no more trying task than attempting to brush your feline’s sharp teeth.
Bites. Claws. Hisses. Cat owners know the routine after the vet recommends a good brushing.
Reddit user u/kuslarvar tells Inverse that they attempted to follow their vet’s advice to brush the teeth of their 10-month-old cat, Otter, who has mild gingivitis, but the outcome wasn’t exactly a smashing success.
“Otter [...] absolutely hates getting her teeth brushed. I just tried [...] and she won't let me do it. She has seafood flavor toothpaste (which looks disgusting) and everything, no dice. She'll smell the toothbrush but if it gets in her mouth she starts violently tearing away from me.
Jan Bellows, president of the Foundation for Veterinary Dentistry, tells Inverse that brushing your cat’s teeth is “very difficult to accomplish.”
But if you can get your pesky cat to cooperate, your pet’s oral hygiene will likely thank you. Inverse answers all your questions about cat toothbrushing: how to do it, which products to use (do not use human toothpaste), and ways to keep your cat’s dental hygiene in check.
Should you brush your cat’s teeth?
If you’ve ever had the misfortune of enduring your cat’s bite, you might naturally be wary of sticking your fingers anywhere near their mouth.
“No thank you,” Twitter user @Tony58889923 tells Inverse. “My fingers sliced to ribbons is not my idea of a good time.”
But if you can brave your cats’ fearsome canine teeth, then it’s not a bad idea to brush them. However, it’s best to speak with your cat’s veterinarian before springing a new, potentially stressful cleaning regimen on your feline.
“Just like with humans, brushing your cat's teeth can prevent gum and dental problems, reduce plaque and tartar, and maybe even help freshen your cat's breath,” Mikel Delgado, a cat expert at Feline Minds and a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis, tells Inverse.
What does science say on the matter?
- One 2002 study in the Journal of Nutrition found that toothbrushing reduced gingivitis, but not as much as expected — though that could be chalked up to the fact that the subjects in the study were kittens and hadn’t yet developed serious dental issues.
- Another 2011 study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that toothbrushing was “very effective” in maintaining oral health, but owners had to brush the cat’s teeth daily to see the desired effect.
But some cats’ personalities can be too pesky to even consider brushing their teeth. If your cat is actively trying to bite you, it’s best to back off.
Twitter user @traceylindeman tells Inverse about their attempt to brush their cat’s teeth:
i tried it once and now i have a basically unused tube of meat toothpaste
However, if all else fails, there are easier ways of keeping your cat’s teeth clean than trying to fit a bristly brush in your cat’s mouth. Bellows recommends removing “the daily accumulation of plaque” in your cat’s mouth “using a q-tip dipped in tuna water.”
You can gently rub the gumlines of your cat's upper and lower teeth with the cotton swab. Bellows says this method is as effective as using any official veterinary oral hygiene products.
Other dental products can help clean your feline’s teeth. Research has previously found that veterinarian-approved dental chew treats can improve cats’ oral hygiene, though some consumers have reported adverse reactions from cats to certain chew treats.
“There are also alternatives to tooth-brushing, such as dental treats, and water additives, for cats who will not accept toothbrushing,” Delgado says.
How to brush your cat’s teeth
After consulting with your veterinarian, you’ve decided to take on the unenviable task of brushing your cat’s teeth. Where should you begin?
- First, you’ll need to acquire veterinarian-recommended feline dental products, which you can find on the Veterinary Oral Health Council’s website.
- You’ll also want to buy a special pet toothbrush that has been designed for dogs and cats. If you need a toothbrush in a pinch, Delgado suggests using a soft bristle baby toothbrush, since you can find one at your local pharmacy.
But there’s one thing you should never do when brushing your cat’s teeth: use human toothpaste. Instead, look for enzymatic toothpaste with an official Veterinary Oral Health Council seal.
“Never use human toothpaste to brush your cat's teeth,” Delgado says. “Instead, use a pet-specific product, that is flavored to be more palatable.”
With the right supplies acquired, you need to brush your cat’s teeth. Take a deep breath and begin. Delgado sets out a four-step process:
- Start slowly by letting your cat lick the toothpaste off your finger.
- Gradually work up to your cat allowing you to approach their face and touch their mouth.
- Push back the [cat’s] lip to expose their teeth and gums.
- Work up to just a brushstroke or two on each quadrant [of the mouth].
One thing to keep in mind: brushing your cat’s teeth is not like brushing your own. A few gentle brush strokes on each quadrant of the mouth — top left, top right, bottom left, bottom right — will make your cat’s teeth sparkling clean. Delgado says it’s partly because enzymes in the toothpaste help reduce the amount of plaque and tarter.
But you’ll want to brush your cat’s teeth regularly for it to truly improve your pet’s dental hygiene, according to Delgado.
Tricks to brush your cat’s teeth
Pet owners often have to contort themselves into unusual positions to safely open their cat’s mouth — and that’s before you even being brushing.
“I have to squat on top of my cat to hold him in place and squish his little mouth open,” Eileen Mary Holowka, Ph.D. candidate and writer, tells Inverse on Twitter. “Somehow, despite this effort, we’re going to the vet this week for dental issues.”
However, some cat owners have remarkably managed to brush their cat’s teeth without too many issues.
Twitter user @mwennersd writes of their Instagram-friendly cat Esteban: “I brush his teeth 3x a week. He mostly complies although sometimes he fights a bit.”
A tip from @mwennersd: give your cat treats afterward. Scientists have shown that using positive reinforcement training, which trains your cat through rewards, is successful in teaching cats new tasks and improves the animal-human bond.
In other words: The anticipation of a reward may help your grumpy or stressed-out cat comply better with the brushing.
You can also try out different flavors of toothpaste to put your cat in a good mood, which may make them more compliant. Flavors can range from poultry-scented toothpaste to a fishy feast.
“If it's the right flavor, your cat will see it as a treat, which makes the whole process much easier!” Delgado says.
Finally, Uri Burstyn of the Vancouver Vet YouTube channel suggests introducing toothbrushing to your cats when they’re still kittens and are open to trying new things. At this stage, you can try gently massage your cat’s gums with your fingers and get them accustomed to objects being in their mouth.
How to treat cat dental disease
Like humans, cats are prone to a host of dental issues, such as plaque buildup. If not treated, these issues can cause dental diseases like:
- Gingivitis (inflammation of the gums)
- Periodontal disease (a more advanced stage of gingivitis)
- Tooth resorption (also known as neck lesions, which can cause tooth decay)
And these problems are on the rise. A 2016 Banfield Pet Hospitals report found that 68 percent of cats suffer from periodontal disease — a 23 percent increase from 2006.
Certain signs can indicate dental problems in cats. These symptoms include:
- Halitosis (stinky breath)
- Blood in saliva
- Head shaking
- Jaw chattering
- Cat pawing at its mouth
Stinky breath is especially worrisome, according to Delgado. If your cat’s breath smells unusually strong, it could mean that your cat has a problem that goes beyond brushing its teeth.
“Some dental problems require professional help — and in some cats, stinky breath is a sign of health problems or teeth that need to be extracted,” Delgado says.
When in doubt, take your cat to a veterinarian. They can answer questions about your pet’s dental hygiene routine — including whether toothbrushing is appropriate for your cat — or they may refer you to a veterinary dental specialist if your feline has specific needs.